Critics say watchdog
group too soft on advertising industry
BY ANDREW MARTIN
Chicago Tribune, 10/31/05
NEW YORK - Kellogg's is trying to convince
kids that Apple Jacks taste more like cinnamon
The cereal-making giant has created a
Jamaica-like cartoon world called Cinna
Island, part of a television and Internet
advertising campaign that depicts a laid-back,
skateboard-riding character named CinnaMon who
extols the "sweet cinnamon taste" of Apple
CinnaMon's foil is a grouchy, scheming "Bad
Apple" who tries - and inevitably fails - to
beat CinnaMon to a bowl of Apple Jacks. "Apple
Jacks doesn't taste like apples because the
sweet taste of cinnamon is the winner, mon,"
one ad concludes.
While the Cinna Island campaign might seem
like just another gimmick to sell sugar-coated
cereal, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and a handful
of public health advocates argue that it's
much more and should never have aired because
it sends a message to children that apples
Harkin registered his complaint in September
with the Children's Advertising Review Unit,
an advertising industry watchdog that is one
of the few avenues for protesting ads
considered misleading or potentially harmful
to children. Touted as a model for industry
self-regulation, CARU, as it is known, reviews
thousands of children's advertisements on
television, in print and on Web sites.
If CARU staffers find something objectionable
in the ad, they urge the advertiser to fix the
But as public concern over childhood obesity
has increased, so too has criticism of
children's advertising and CARU's role in
monitoring it. Some critics argue that CARU is
so toothless and ineffective that federal
regulation of children's advertising may be
"CARU says that self-regulation is working,
but any parent (who) watches a half an hour of
children's television or walks through the
grocery store knows that it isn't," said Margo
Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the
advocacy group Center for Science in the
At a Federal Trade Commission hearing on
children's advertising in July, the grocery
and advertising industries vowed to beef up
CARU by adding additional staff, sharpening
the ad unit's guidelines and improving access
to CARU for consumers.
The FTC is expected to release a report on
children's advertising and childhood obesity
by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine, a
federal advisory group, is planning to release
its own study in December that looks at the
influence of food marketing on childhood
obesity. Last year, the Institute of Medicine
recommended that the food industry develop
voluntarily guidelines that minimize the risk
of obesity in children.
Elizabeth Lascoutx, CARU's director, argues
that her five-person staff has been effective
in regulating advertisements aimed at
children. In the last 2 1/2 years, she said,
CARU has asked companies to revise 254 ads,
and in only six cases have they refused.
"I think the changes that have been made are
kind of impressive," she said.
Many of the improvements proposed for CARU at
the July hearing are already in place,
Lascoutx said, and task forces are reviewing
others. For instance, CARU hired a public
relations specialist, added two nutritionists
to its advisory board and is hiring two more
staff members to handle its expanding
workload. A complaint form is available to the
public at CARU's Web site, www.caru.org.
But when it comes to CARU's role in monitoring
what kinds of food advertisers peddle to kids,
nothing has changed. Lascoutx said it simply
isn't CARU's role to tell companies what they
"We are empowered to look at how products are
advertised," she said, "not what products are
In doing so, CARU sidesteps the issue of
childhood obesity, said Ellen Fried, a
research associate at Yale University's Rudd
Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
"Self-regulation hasn't really worked in any
industry," she said. "A watchdog won't bite
the hand that feeds it."
At the very least, Fried said, a combination
of government and industry regulation should
be required that could start by banning
advertising to children in schools and on
children's television. Short of a total ban,
she argued that nutritional standards for
children's ads are crucial, as is meaningful
CARU is investigating the Apple Jacks ad, and
Lascoutx would not discuss it. But more
broadly, critics say the group focuses on
minor, often inconsequential problems while
children are deluged with junk-food ads. And
even when CARU instructs advertisers to change
an ad, that often comes after the ad has run
for weeks or months.
"When you talk about their success record, it
sounds so impressive," Wootan said. "But if
you actually look at those cases one by one,
you see that CARU is really nitpicking around
the edges of the ad. ... The basic question
is: Is deception the main concern? Or is there
a larger concern that the ads negatively
affect children's diet and health?"
As an example, Wootan said she complained to
CARU about an advertisement by Arby's that
wrapped around an issue of National Geographic
Kids magazine that looked like the
publication's actual cover. Wootan argued that
it was a fake ad that promoted unhealthy food
and included the dubious phrase "trusted by
CARU agreed that Arby's should remove "trusted
by moms" from the advertisement but otherwise
left it alone.
"Who cares if they took off `trusted by
moms'?" Wootan said. "It was still an ad that
had a negative effect on kids' diets."
CARU is an arm of the National Advertising
Review Council and was founded by the
advertising industry in 1974 at a time when
consumer advocates were calling for regulation
of children's ads. Its $650,000 annual budget
is paid for primarily by the companies it
Lascoutx, an attorney who joined CARU 14 years
ago and has been director since 1995, said her
staff tapes six to 12 hours of children's
television shows a day, then fast-forwards
through the shows to review the ads. Staffers
also pore through children's publications and
surf children's Web sites - including the
popular online games, known as "advergaming,"
that promote products.
"Over the course of a week, we do see
everything that is out there for kids," she
said. "If there's a URL on a TV commercial,
we'll go there."
CARU's staff works off guidelines that dictate
advertisements be truthful and accurate and
not exploit a child's imagination, offer
products that are appropriate for children,
and present positive role models whenever
possible. The principles also make clear that
prime responsibility lies with parents.
In interpreting the guidelines, CARU's staff
is urged to make sure that children are not
encouraged to nag their parents, that snack
foods should be represented as such and not as
substitutes for meals, and that the amount of
product consumed in ads should be within
reasonable limits. They also are urged to make
sure that "food products should be made so as
to encourage sound use of the product with a
view toward healthy development of the child
and development of good nutritional
In defending CARU, Lascoutx noted that the
agency has asked for changes to commercials
that showed teenagers wordlessly devouring
candy out of a bag and of a child eating candy
in his room while his family was downstairs
eating dinner. She also noted that in
instances where companies don't comply, CARU
has referred them to the federal government
for enforcement when appropriate.
Lascoutx also touted victories against food
companies. Most recently, for instance, CARU
forced food companies to change the name of
Fruit Snacks, a popular treat for children, to
Fruit-Flavored Snacks, because they didn't
actually contain fruit.
Asked about the prospect of government
regulation of children's ads, Lascoutx pointed
out that Sweden and the Canadian province of
Quebec already prohibit or limit advertising
to children, but childhood obesity remains a
problem in both places.
Underage consumers represent billions of
dollars to the food and advertising industry.
The Institute of Medicine reported last year
that food and beverage sales to youngsters
exceeded $27 billion in 2002, while food and
beverage advertisers spent $12 billion on
The Apple Jacks ad is in many ways a seemingly
perfect example of the dispute over CARU's
role in the childhood obesity debate.
Wootan said that after she sent a letter of
complaint to Kellogg's about the ad, the only
thing the company changed was the online
biography for the "Bad Apple." Now Bad Apple's
hobbies include meddling and scheming as well
as promoting the goodness of apples.
Kellogg's defended the ad, saying it was
simply trying to be "lighthearted and fun."
"It is not intended to disparage apples or
discourage children from eating apples," a
Harkin argues that the Apple Jacks ad
reinforces doubts about the advertising
industry's ability to regulate itself. Besides
denigrating apples, Harkin said, the campaign
implies that cinnamon is responsible for the
cereal's sweet taste "rather than the added
sugar that comprises Apple Jacks' No. 1
Harkin said he received a letter from CARU in
September saying the panel would issue a news
release when its inquiry was completed.
But while he waits, the ad continues to run.
"The damage is done," said Harkin. "What good
The Children's Advertising Review Unit
monitors advertising directed at children
younger than 12. The group says ads should:
_Be credible, as children have limited
capacity for evaluating information
_Not exploit children's imaginations by
presenting unreasonable expectations of
product quality or performance.
_Be truthful and accurate, recognizing that
kids learn from advertising.
_Avoid products and content inappropriate for
_Encourage friendship, kindness, honesty,
generosity and respect for others.
_Use minority and other groups in positive
roles and avoid stereotyping and appeals to
_Encourage healthy parent-child relationships.
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